Three Rosters

Apr 24, 2020

Is "when you tweet an article, people should read the article before responding to the tweet" a rule? Because I know how this is going to go. I'm going to write this article, and I'm going to include several "you know, if there's even a season this winter" disclaimers, and then I'm going to tweet the article, and then I'm going to get at least three "I'm not sure why this matters because I don't think there will even be a season" responses on Twitter. Internally, every time, I'm all I SAID THAT THREE TIMES IN THE ARTICLE, but perhaps the rule is that I should put the disclaimer in the tweet to prevent the responses. Because people aren't going to read the article and respond. They're simply going to respond to the concept found in the title of the article.

I'm a 1950's sportswriter in a social media world.

Here's the concept of this article: IF WE HAVE A SEASON, with two players still deciding whether or not they stay in the draft, there are three possible rosters for Brad Underwood next season: the roster as it stands, the roster with Kofi returning, and the roster with both Ayo and Kofi returning. Yes, there's probably a fourth possibility here where Kofi stays in the draft and Ayo returns, but I see that as highly unlikely. In my view, if Kofi stays in the draft, it's because there's a much higher chance that there will be professional basketball in the next 12 months than college basketball, and if that's the case, Ayo is certainly gone.

Yes, there's also the chance that there's a grad transfer here or there. Those could alter the season as well. But, generally, everything is set. There are 10 players for next season, 11 if Kofi returns, 12 if Ayo returns. Perhaps both Kofi and Ayo leave and are replaced by two grad transfers, but in that scenario, the grad transfers likely wouldn't provide 1/10th of what Kofi and Ayo would have provided. So I see this as three rosters: what kind of team do we have now, what kind of a team do we have if Kofi returns, and what kind of team do we have if both Kofi and Ayo return. Let's climb that ladder.

The Team As It Stands Today

Kipper Nichols and Andres Feliz graduated. Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones transferred. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn declared for the draft. So as of today, there are five players returning from last season, two sit-out transfers who will be eligible next season, plus three incoming freshmen:

Trent Frazier (SR)
Da'Monte Williams (SR)
Giorgi Bezhanishvili (JR)
Austin Hutcherson (JR)
Jacob Grandison (JR)
Jermaine Hamlin (SO)
Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (rs-FR)
Coleman Hawkins (FR)
Andre Curbelo (FR)
Adam Miller (FR)

There's perhaps a better way to write that out. The rotation last season was, for the most part, eight guys. If a ninth guy got in the game, it was Tevian Jones. So of those nine, the players in bold are gone:

Ayo Dosunmu
Trent Frazier
Andres Feliz
Da'Monte Williams
Alan Griffin
Tevian Jones
Kipper Nichols

Giorgi Bezhanishvili
Kofi Cockburn

Just on the surface - take the names away and remove the Illinois - that's a massive step back. If, say, Wake Forest was 21-10 last season and ended the year ranked 21st, but then you tell me that from their top nine they had two graduations, two transfers, and two NBA declarations from their best two players, I'm just blindly saying 14-17 next season. It just happens like that.

An example: Illinois and Iowa State played in Maui in November 2018, Iowa State won, they won 23 games that year while Illinois won 12. Illinois got everyone back this season (same team, a year older, plus Kofi) while Iowa State lost several key players and... Illinois won 21 games this season and Iowa State won 12. It's a fairly typical cycle for all but the top programs. Heavy roster losses = a big drop in your record. You can offset it with roster additions and sophomore leaps (the biggest reason we went from 12 wins to 21 was Ayo becoming a sophomore), but for the most part, it's the "wow they return a lot next season" teams that win big. For the most part.

So a team without Kofi and Ayo is probably a team that struggles. We have two instant impact freshmen coming in, so I don't expect an Iowa State drop, but that's still a team that struggles, I think. Especially with Alan Griffin gone. It felt like he was ready to be the breakout star next season, and now he's off to Syracuse.

Starting lineup would probably be Trent and DaMonte plus one of the freshman guards (let's say Miller) and then one of the transfers (Hutcherson or Grandison - I'll guess Hutcherson) at the four plus Giorgi and the five. Bench is then the other freshman guard (Curbelo in this case) and the other transfer (Grandison) plus Hamlin, BBV, and Hawkins.

I don't think that's a Tournament team. It could possibly get there if Miller and Curbelo have Kofi-like freshman impacts (and if the transfers are the real deal), but I just don't think that team can get there.

Kofi Returns

Now that changes a ton. Kofi would be pushing for First Team All Big Ten honors to follow up his Freshman Of The Year campaign, and that changes so much. A list:

  1. Giorgi doesn't have to hold down the frontcourt by himself. It would be something like the second-half of this season. Kofi plays 25 minutes at the 5, Giorgi plays 15 minutes at the 5, and Giorgi also gets maybe 5-10 minutes at the 4.
  2. That trickles down through the rest of the roster. From the very little practice I saw, I think Austin Hutcherson is an Aaron Jordan (a 3 who can play the 4 in a pinch) and Jacob Grandison is more of a Kipper (a shorter 4-man), so if Giorgi doesn't have to be the entire frontcourt and Kofi is patrolling the paint, both Grandison and Hutcherson can settle more into their natural roles.
  3. We'd have a potential first team All Big Ten center patrolling the paint.

To me, that moves this team to the good side of the bubble. Maybe not ranked #21, but you'd have a star, and stars matter. Let's call that team a 10-seed.

Kofi and Ayo return

I'll say it again - I think this is highly unlikely. I believe Ayo will stay in the draft. So this is the "let me dream" scenario.

If Ayo returned, I believe he would be Big Ten Player of the Year next season. Even if Luka Garza returned. I think he'd be a college basketball superstar pushing for All American teams. He took a big leap this season, and with another leap, he could be junior year Cassius Winston at Michigan State. The guy that makes everything go. I might even go as far as junior-year Deron Williams.

That changes everything, right? Having two potential first team All Big Ten players changes the entire landscape. As does removing them.

Look at it this way. Picture the 2005 team with two first-team All Big Ten guys removed: Deron Williams and Luther Head. We go into the 2005 season with a starting lineup of Dee Brown, Rich McBride, Calvin Brock, Roger Powell, and James Augustine. Still a great team, but nowhere close to 37-2, right? Maybe just a regular old 6-seed?

That's the difference I see if both Ayo and Kofi were to return. This lineup dominates:

Ayo Dosunmu
Trent Frazier
Da'Monte Williams
Austin Hutcherson
Kofi Cockburn

Giorgi Bezhanishvili
Adam Miller
Andre Curbelo
Jacob Grandison

Maybe Miller pushes past Da'Monte into the starting lineup. Maybe one of the other bigs (Hamlin or BBV) is part of the rotation. But that's a team that could do a lot of damage. Especially with the Big Ten Player of the Year.

That's how much these two decisions mean, at least in my mind. From "yeah, not a Tournament team" to "could we win the Big Ten?" just by getting two players back. From "I'd like to see that team get some experience in the NIT" to "book your tickets for the second weekend of the Tournament".

I know it won't happen. The season might not even happen. But I can dream.


Groundhogday on April 24 @ 02:31 PM CDT

I'm going to focus on the middle scenario because it is fairly likely and I don't want to contemplate next season without Kofi. Let's look at minutes and replacements. Jones hardly played, so no need to consider replacing his minutes.

  • 34 Dosunmu --> Miller, Hutcherson
  • 30 Frazier
  • 27 Cockburn
  • 27 Feliz --> Curbelo
  • 23 Giorgi
  • 22 Williams
  • 18 Griffin --> Hutcherson
  • 14 Nichols --> Grandison, BBV, Hawkins

One way to think of this is that with Griffin and Nichols we need to replace a combined 32 minutes. It would seem that this replacement will be by committee: Hutcherson, Gradison, BBV and Hawkins all contributing minutes. I don't think it will be that hard to replace Nichols' minutes, but obviously we'll miss Griffin on the glass and shooting.

Curbelo replacing Feliz means a talent upgrade with a loss of experience. Might come out ahead later in the season.

Replacing Dosunmu will be impossible. This is where you need Frazier, Williams, Kofi, etc.. to all step up their games. No guarantee Miller is even a quality starter as a freshman and Ayo was our best player. We will need to see improvement from many different guys to make that up.

IlliNYC on April 24 @ 04:15 PM CDT

Here's wildly my optimistic take. I think we're a better team next year under scenario 2.

We now have senior veteran leaders...something our program hasn't had in years. They know the program and can help the young guys.

Kofi with even minor improvements in catching and finishing around the rim has a chance to be among the most dominant players in the country.

Damonte can build on his late season ability to hit the open shot and becomes the perfect 3 and D wing.

With another year, Giorgi becomes really comfortable in (and plays within) his role and provides needed post scoring when Kofi is on the bench and improves the jumper. We see that good passing we've heard about.

Trent and Ayo never really could figure it out. With Ayo gone, Trent can become the dominant/dynamic scorer he is.

Curbelo/Miller/Hutcherson/Grandison can far surpass Griffin/Feliz in overall production.

BBV showed flashes and will give us minutes as the pure 4 we lacked all year.

Hamlin adds some strength and provides real depth at the 5.

We'll be deeper, we'll have a clear identity, and our coaching staff has figured it out.

Really hope there is a season.

Groundhogday on April 30 @ 12:48 PM CDT

I'd forgotten about the Trent/Ayo thing. They learned to play together somewhat, but I'll agree Trent never thrived offensively with that combo. WIth Curbelo we'll have a pass-first, true PG for the first time in the Underwood era. Interesting to see how much he makes others better as a true freshman.

Efremwinters84 on April 24 @ 05:14 PM CDT

You nailed it Robert!

Give me scenario 2, please. I'm really hoping we benefit one more year from Kofi's massive defensive presence in the paint.

uilaw71 on April 25 @ 08:08 AM CDT

Where is the love for Miller in scenarios 1 and 2? This kid is the real deal, someone who in your vernacular can be “the Man”.

Robert on April 25 @ 12:09 PM CDT

I think Miller can be The Man sophomore year and beyond. But I don't think he'll make that much of a difference as a true freshman (in terms of how I'm looking at these rosters). In fact, with so much ball-handling gone (Ayo + Feliz), I think Curbelo might play more than Miller next year.

I still think Miller will be involved, but maybe in the way that Rocket Watts was part of the Michigan State offense last year as a true freshman (9.0 ppg). That's not enough to change my equation.

Perhaps a better comp is Jalen Coleman Lands. JCL was rated #37 in the composite rankings - Miller is #33. JCL proved to not be the 37th-best prospect in that class, so that would be the low end of expectations, but if we're looking for Illini off-guard comps, that's probably the best.

Bear8287 on April 25 @ 04:05 PM CDT

Huh, ever notice how under some coaches higher ranked players don't seem to "pan out" while under other coaches lower ranked players seem to "outperform"?

I wonder why that is?

Groundhogday on April 30 @ 12:50 PM CDT

If we are going with the JCL comp, have to add that Miller is substantially bigger, stronger and more athletic. And he plays D.

But offensively, the JCL comp isn't bad. Let's see if Miller improves in other aspects of his game.

NC_OrangeKrush on April 25 @ 09:32 AM CDT

I think the difference is day 1 of the season love vs game 7 of the B1G season. There will be a lot of love by then...

Same with a comment that Curbelo is an upgrade over Feliz... Not right away...

illiniu on May 04 @ 03:33 PM CDT

Finally, a big Illini day on BTN. Watching Brandon Paul's 43-point effort and Meyers Leonard. There was a very good reason Leonard left early for NBA. But he waited until after soph season to leave and became the #11 pick in the NBA draft, I think. I hope Kofi reads this.

Anyway, who was the first Illini to leave early for NBA? Derek Harper? Thanks.

illiniu on May 04 @ 05:19 PM CDT

Still watching BTN. Illini versus Mich at Assembly Hall, January, 1989. Both teams look like men among boys compared to modern players.

Or maybe the refs just let them play physical basketball. I dunno. But both teams appeared to play pretty "clean" basketball.

I think '89 Illini were the best-ever Illinois basketball team. 2005 great - but not in same league as '89.

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